¥50 billion budgeted for new nuke agency

Kyodo

Some ¥50.4 billion to establish a new nuclear safety agency in April under the Environment Ministry will be allocated in the initial draft budget for fiscal 2012, the government decided Saturday.

The agency is intended to replace the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, the current regulatory body under the trade ministry, and take on related tasks, including environmental radiation monitoring that is currently carried out by other organizations.

With a staff of 485, the new regulator will focus on reinforcing crisis management functions and upgrading nuclear safety regulations in light of the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant in Fukushima Prefecture.

Its senior members will include one person to oversee the response of nuclear power plant operators in emergencies and provide advice to them, and another to take charge of ensuring the safety of local residents during disasters.

The ¥50 billion budget is an increase from the roughly ¥36.5 billion that was allocated to existing organizations, such as NISA, in the initial budget for fiscal 2011.

The idea of overhauling the safety regulators emerged amid allegations that NISA is tied too closely to the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry — whose job is to promote nuclear power as a safe form of energy — to effectively do its job.

The government has also acknowledged in a report to the International Atomic Energy Agency that the current system, which involves various governmental organizations, made it difficult to promptly respond to the Fukushima crisis.

Environment Minister Goshi Hosono has said that the launch of the new safety agency may be “the last chance” for Japan to restore public confidence in the government’s regulations.

“We should clearly break away from nuclear safety regulations that have always been undermined by the existence of the promoter (of the nuclear power industry),” he said in an apparent reference to METI. “We must show to the public that it is clearly a new start,” Hosono said.

The government is working to submit bills related to the launch of the agency and the reinforcement of regulations during the ordinary Diet session to be convened in Janurary, Hosono said.

Of the ¥50 billion, about ¥9.0 billion has been set aside as subsidies to support local government efforts to prepare for nuclear disasters, up from the ¥3.1 billion initially set in the fiscal 2011 budget.

About ¥1.4 billion is allocated for the new agency’s radiation monitoring activities. The agency also will take over running the System for Prediction of Environmental Emergency Dose Information (SPEEDI), a computer system designed to predict the dispersal of radioactive materials in the atmosphere.

In its handling of the Fukushima crisis after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, the government was criticized for withholding and being slow to use crucial data produced by SPEEDI. Critics say the data could have prevented evacuees from fleeing to areas that actually had higher levels of radiation.

The agency will also be in charge of conducting health checks for people affected by the Fukushima accident, with ¥1.9 billion allocated for the work.

Under the existing regulation system, NISA is the primary nuclear watchdog and its activities are overseen by the Nuclear Safety Commission of the Cabinet Office. The new agency, tentatively called the Nuclear Safety and Security Agency, will integrate NISA and the commission.

Meanwhile, the effectiveness of the overall nuclear regulatory system will be examined by a five-member panel that will have the authority to conduct investigations into accidents.